Real Women Don’t Wear Dresses is when writers portray female characters possessing traditional feminine qualities as being less desirable, competent and reliable instead of their tomboy foils. They also tend to be presented as whiny and annoying, even though they have traits or commit actions of worth and merit. This trope is one that I’ve come to view as “problematic” because it implies femininity should be demonized and torn down.

Many writers seem to believe that they need to epitomize a female character’s strength through their ability to beat and to take beatings from men, not their personality. When people write “strong female characters” (God, I hate that term) while ignoring the most fundamental part of what it means to be a woman by not giving them feminine traits and end up creating female characters that behave more like men rather than women. As a male writer, I wish to pen women that are strong in “classical feminine” ways in lieu of making them come across as “men with tits”.

How should I deal with such a dilemma?

  • 40
    Warning: TV Tropes links in question. Click only if you have two hours to spare. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 16:14
  • 44
    “...the most fundamental part of what it means to be a woman” You’ve loaded a lot of stereotypes in that small sentence and it certainly does not have anything to do with wearing dresses. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 17:56
  • 7
    @TheLoneMilkMan: That small sentence is perfectly fine and I agree that most stories ignore it (IMHO, most fundamental part = monthly bleeding, sometimes painful). There were a couple of episodes in 'Third Rock from the Sun' that acknowledged it and it was so refreshingly funny! The problem is really the continuation (...giving them feminine traits...) since a lot of those traits are more societal imposition than natural inclination. And, yes, a lot of women impose them on each other. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 18:11
  • 19
    But they ARE strong and tough! Proof: look at a video game—the males are heavily armored, and the females kick ass practically naked.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 20:03
  • 13
    A good way to avoid this stereotype is to write more than one woman into your story. Some women like dresses, others like bomber jackets. By having many different kinds of women with many different kinds of personality and presentation it shows a greater slice of the reality that women live. It's not a fully fledged answer, but often the ways people fall into this are by writing only one woman, or writing all women exactly the same. Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 2:33

12 Answers 12


I would suggest looking at the women in your life (family, friends, co-workers, etc).

I have a problem with the ideas of 'feminine qualities' and 'femininity'. They imply that without those a woman isn't a real woman. Much like a man won't be a real man unless he is and can do a set of things. You could perhaps think about the stereotypes for 'manly qualities' and 'masculinity' and draw parallels between those concepts and the reality you know as a man. Just imagine yourself buying a piece of clothing and having the assistant say it's a very nice choice, but won't you consider this other option which is more masculine and would, therefore, suit you better. Yeah. Switch it for 'feminine' and that is what women who prefer a sportive look have to put up with.

To deal with feminine characters that aren't cliché 'femininity', look at real women. I shall give you some examples from real life women:

  • Woman A: in her fifties. She has always been diplomatic in speech, smiley and eager to help. She can sew wonderfully and loves to make the cutest outfits for her many little nieces and nephews, and now grandchildren. She loves decoration, too. I have not seen her in a skirt or dress in over 20 years. Even for weddings, she'll simply put on nice looking pants. She'll tell you all the many reasons why skirts are uncomfortable.

  • Woman B: in her thirties. Hates frills, lace and all girly, feminine clothes. Does wear skirts and dresses but prefers simple cuts that fit the body without 'advertising the goods' because, really, why don't you just add arrows to the boobs. No make-up. Practicality, people! She wore high heels to her wedding under duress and got off them the moment the photos were done. Adores her long sleek hair and is always changing the colour, doing it up in ponytails (you won't know how many ways there are of making a simple-looking ponytail until you meet her). She loves cooking and was born to be a mother.

  • Woman C: 30s. Give her high heels and the most feminine, sexiest clothes, complete with frills, lace, jewelry, make-up, the works. Curses like a field worker and has the grace of an ox. She will 'run you over' if you fail to praise her goddaughter in anyway.

  • Woman D: 40s. can't stand heels and would live with trainers only; hates pants and shorts, loves skirts and dresses; cannot cook or sew; hates cleaning the house and has no problem receiving friends while having around piles of clothes which will eventually be ironed (probably five minutes before being worn), a pile of dirty plates to be washed 'tonight' (or when she feels like it), and a few dirty clothes on the floor (she's separating them into different colours to make separate loads... only she does the separating throughout the week). She basically lives like the stereotypical frat boy and will clean up for real only when her mother announces a visit.

  • Woman E: 40s. Blunt in her honesty and even bordering on rude/aggressive, but you know she is the greatest friend ever and will stand by your side no matter what (and I mean the drop everything to drive miles and be there for you kind of friend); loves cars and driving, and can put up all sorts of IKEA furniture without a helping hand (very proud of her handiness); will dress up to go out with a long flowing skirt, otherwise a pair of jeans, comfortable flat (unflattering) shoes and a clean T-shirt are good enough; will not go anywhere without earrings (huge collection).

  • 'Woman' F: 10 year old. Loves princesses, skirts, dresses and glitter. Loves running and roughing it with her cousins (both female and male). Will enjoy 'mock' fighting and won't be bothered by bruises and scratches.

As you can see, all those women have some traits that are typically feminine (some more than others), but they also have traits that are not considered feminine.

My suggestion is that you give your heroine a mix of traits. Some may be feminine, most will be normal. Neither typically feminine nor masculine, just... normal!

Moreover, keep in mind that different cultures have different ideas for 'typical women'. I grew up surrounded by real strong women. They're the ones that rarely raise their voice, but when they do people around will listen. There's a saying that 'a real man doesn't cry not even if he sees his guts in his hands'. Well, there's no saying for women, but I have always seen women act according to it. You may have your loved one dying in your arms, but you will not break down and cry in front of them while you can still do something to help or comfort. Later, you can cry your heart out with your friends and family, but not when 'your guts are in your hands'. You put up with being harassed, shamed, ridiculed and paternalised, but you keep your head high and keep going even if you are breaking apart inside.

I have a woman in my family who lived over 40 years with crippling pain. She only lost her smile and warmth when it got too much, and she still tried to play it down.

From the women around me, I learnt that a woman puts up with a lot of shit and pain (motherhood, especially) and will talk about it and vent, but will not self-pity, ever! Crying your heart out and venting is not self-pitying, by the way, though some men may think it is. You have to let your pain out some way in order to pick yourself up and keep going. Self-pitying is whining over and over about the same thing and never do anything to try and overcome it.

A strong woman may let someone win an argument because it's not worth her time and energy, but will bulldozer anyone - man and woman - if her family is in the line. And, for that, she will use words, hands, umbrellas and anything else she can get her hands on.

So, forget the clichés for women and look around at the women in your life. Look at those you look up to as strong and capable of making through anything (for me, it would be mostly aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers). See how they measure up to the cliché in order to weed out what definitely doesn't make a woman a woman. Lace and frills, for example.

  • 6
    I like your approach for this answer. You're providing both practical experience, real life description, fictional works and trivia in a way everything is related.
    – Clockwork
    Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 8:52
  • 16
    As several of your example include, real women (and men) own more than one outfit. Take Kaylee from Firefly as an example - when she's mucking around with the ship engines, she dresses comparatively tomboyish. But give her an opportunity to wear a pretty dress, and she jumps at the chance. The former doesn't make her any less feminine, the latter doesn't make her any less competent. But she wears the right things, and acts the right way, for the situation she is currently in. Real women sometimes wear dresses. Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 15:17
  • 4
    @Chronocidal: I completely agree. It's much like wearing a shirt and a tie for a man - wearing it or not is a choice that does nothing to define how masculine or not he is. One will wear what one wants to wear when one wants to wear it. Now that was a mouthful ;) Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 15:25

You dress the women however you like, and have them take whatever role they wish in their life. You pay them the same (or more) than their male counterparts for equal work, and most importantly, you have men and women alike look to women with respect. Ask their opinion. Listen to it and follow it. Consider their words. See the wisdom in them. If you open with something like this, a male MC reflecting on how he can always count on his cousin to have thought things through, more than anyone else he knows, then even if her name is Sissy and she speaks with a lisp and wears go-go boots and miniskirts and fishnet stockings, you'll be giving the reader something to think about. This sort of reflection on your male MC's part also makes him more interesting. And of course, your female viewpoint characters should also reflect on women positively, too.

If your characters see women as strong, so will you reader.

Also. Do a word count in your novel. See how many him and his vs. how many her and hers you have. Is it balanced? Or even female heavy? (females are often invisible. Go ahead--make it female heavy.) See how much dialog is from women vs men. Et cetera. Ask yourself if your women's dialog is declarative and authoritative, or more along the lines of a supplicant or servant. Who is asking the questions in the novel? Who is dispensing knowledge?

^^I recommend these sorts of metrics... because many male writers that I personally know stuff their novels full of men running around doing 'men things.' A couple women are tossed in as an afterthought, to take care of bearing children and looking nice. So go ahead--since you identify as a male writer, check your numbers.

The last thing you should worry about is how anyone dresses.

Also, a small thing up front, like a man taking on a small female-centric task, perhaps mending a tear in her skirt or some such, can go a long way to communicate the frame of your view of women.


I don't understand the dilemma, just write it the way you want. Ultimately if you want a strong women that embraces her femininity, you are going to put her in a dress, have her pay attention to her grooming, skin, hair, makeup, etc, all the clichés of being a girly girl.

So she needs to express her strength and heroism in other ways. That isn't difficult, the hallmarks of heroism are persistence in the face of setbacks or injuries (physical or emotional), and deciding to do what is right even if it is frightening, dangerous, or even (especially) life-threatening. Heroism is in many ways altruistic self-sacrifice, helping others no matter the cost to themselves because they adhere to a higher principle. Oddly this is particularly applicable to anti-heroes that appear selfish or callous, but the redeeming quality that makes them a hero is ultimately some form of altruistic self-sacrifice.

You can write a girly-girl, but like the anti-hero, you just have to make sure the character will have the inner steel to do whatever it takes to do the right thing. To take the risks that must be taken to get it done, even if she fears it.

Her strength doesn't have to be physical. Even for male heroes, their strength is just one tool they use to express their will. She needs that will, courage to stand up to evil even if she fears it, even if she is bound to be hurt or injured or even killed. Even if she is certain she will be defeated. Even if the consequences of standing up are unimaginable. Courage and commitment to principle and self-sacrifice for love are human traits. Ask any woman that would literally risk death to save their child's life. These traits are not exclusive to male characters.


Inanna's Journey and "girly" heroes

There are traditional "girly" heroes – often they take the pattern of Inanna's Journey. Rather than "leveling up" like a plucky male hero, Inanna's Journey is about maintaining wits/dignity/femininity while losing or descending in status. Once she's lost everything, she wins by proving her worth isn't about superficial material things but her strength of character (sometimes coded as undisguisable beauty or high breeding).

Cinderella has feminine hero traits of endurance and kindness. Her goal isn't to punch someone in the face but to experience a beautiful party – that's it, that's her desire. She doesn't expect anything more than that, it's the total opposite of cleaning fireplaces and scrubbing floors. She doesn't vow revenge on her oppressors (all female) or set out to infiltrate the monarchy. She still manages to have an enduring story because her story isn't really about magic shoes and dresses, it's about an underdog who has a desire. A lesser story would fulfill the desire then end, Cinderella gets a "Yes, But…" on her dream-come-true and the story continues. She appears to have no agency, but her girly moment upsets the whole country (compare to winning a tournament that upsets the whole country).

Cinderella is not a Feminist paradise. The antagonists fail, not because they violate Cinderella's value system of kindness and endurance, but because

the stepsisters' feet do not meet male-gaze expectations of femininity.

So there are negatives to the girly hero if the whole issue of gender/femininity is reduced to "looking nice in a dress".

Write better characters

I wrote a recap of the rules Samual R Delaney and Marilyn Hacker created for "better, more varied, more believable women characters": What is meant by “purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” actions?

Through her experience as an editor, Hacker complained that female characters were restricted to another false dichotomy: Vicious Evil Bitches or Simps – limitations that arose because the (rare) female character was only in service to a male protagonist. The shallowness of their character design reflected how little they contributed. Simps were girly and fell in love with the protagonist. Bitches were – well, bitches – some kind of ineffectual antagonist, but often became Simps upon meeting him.

The false dichotomy is whether they were nice or mean, since they had the same reason for being in the story: to flatter the main character. They had no narrative agency or realistic motivations. It was easy to classify them as one or the other despite the crossover because there wasn't enough of a character to identify as anything else.

enter image description here

Diversify your female characters

Dress or Pants is a false dichotomy that doesn't say anything meaningful about g̶e̶n̶d̶e̶r̶ a character. The real issue is shallow tournament plots that climax in fisticuffs and action-movie banter. There just isn't a whole lot of variation or character depth there. The climax will be Hero confronts Villain, so those are the only characters that get any sort of arc to feel real.

The Feminist in me can't unsee that many male supporting characters are also "Simps and Bitches" just played out non-sexually. A sidekick is essentially a Simp following the hero around, while a frenemy (like Lancelot) starts confrontational but is won over by the hero's charisma or whatever – it's Bitch-to-Simp just without the skirt. It looks worse on female characters because of the lack of female protagonists, and a lack of other female characters in general.

Mix up the tropes you associate with girly-women and tomboys. I'll bet they suggest new characters that you recognize. For instance, which one loves animals (a feminine trait?) and what type of animal would each prefer? Which one has a closet full of shoes – is it somehow better if those shoes are high heels or the latest Air Jordans®? Which one is more physically competitive? Which one is more vain? Which one is more ambitious, or self-conscious? Which one works in an all-male industry, which one has considered their gender presentation and altered it to be accepted? For all of these I can imagine reality-based characters that go either way, and it forces me to re-think my own expectations. Pick something they wouldn't do, and make it work.

Write better stories

This is the whole point of Delaney's essay.

A realistically diverse population of women (in all age groups and financial tiers as suggested by Delaney and Hacker) would contextualize the character within a world of people, rather than fill the passenger seat as the sidekick/Simp and frenemy/Bitch to flatter a hero's journey, or more rare to substitute as the same old Hero with a slight cosmetic variation: a Ripley character.

The easiest thing to do is add more female characters so this one doesn't stand out as representational of all women who exist in the story – you'll need more than 2 or you end up with the false dichotomy again.

Lastly, here is the direct quote from Delaney's essay about the 3 actions that all characters need [my clarifications are in square brackets]:

Action is the clearest (and most commercial) way to present character. A good character of either sex must be shown performing purposeful actions (that further the plot), habitual actions (that particularly define her or him), and gratuitous actions (actions that imply a life beyond the limit of the fiction).

Simply because the way most books are plotted, the male characters regularly get to indulge in all three types of actions, however, if evil bitch, [her actions] are all purpose but no habit or gratuitous; if simp she is all gratuitous but no purpose or habit.

So the first task, after finding a plot that just does not require women in either of these ugly, banal, and boringly cliché grooves, is to make sure you portray your women characters clearly performing all three types of actions. (And, re: the purposeful actions, performing them successfully!)

  • 6
    After the Cinderella mention, I just had to add... as a ten year old I got my hands on the original versions of lots of fairy tales: Snow White having the evil queen dance in hot iron shoes till death, another one requesting a little chair made from her stepmother's bones (she had ripped out the heroine's eyes)... I so loved to see the heroines get their rightful revenges! Way better than always forgiving and offering the other cheek. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 16:14
  • 2
    My personal opinion is that the Brothers Grimm indulged in some salacious editorializing…. Their versions of well-known traditional stories are consistently more "Grand Guignol" than any other source….
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 17:21
  • 1
    @jpmc26: Having in mind that the boys got to have revenges, I think I was just real happy the girls could to. Besides, those 'revenges' were often painted as 'justice'. And if justice for the evil giant was death, then the stepmother who ripped her stepdaughter's eyes deserved death too. Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 18:37
  • 1
    @wetcircuit: Oh, I don't know. Have you read about some of the more creative death sentences of older times? I'm pretty sure people who saw the handywork of Inquisition would add those particularly horrifying deaths in any story where they'd want a particularly nasty villain appropriately punished. Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 18:42
  • 4
    Your spoiler seems a bit of a stretch. The prince wasn't going off of shoe size because he preferred girls with feet like Cinderella's; he was using the size as an identifier for Cinderella herself, and only because that was the sole (no pun intended) form of identification she left behind.
    – JAB
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 21:08

"Strong" isn't always about having the biggest muscles, and not all conflicts are physical. (Likewise, giving a male character the ability to lift heavy objects doesn't mean he can't be whiny and annoying.)

There are plenty of traits you can use to make your character effective: the creativity and intelligence to find solutions, the foresight to plan ahead, the charisma and people skills to win friends and allies. But most importantly, she needs a backbone (and if she's the hero, a moral compass).

She doesn't need to be a martial arts expert, she just needs to be willing to take charge in a crisis. There's no reason people can't admire (real-life example I saw a couple of months ago) the manager's wife at the coffee shop, the one who's not afraid to throw out a crazy customer who's 1) about 2 feet taller than she is and 2) extremely angry about their coffee being made wrong... while her useless, whiny husband (personal motto: "I don't want trouble") hides in his office and pretends nothing's wrong. (Everyone there knows who's really in charge, and it's not the guy wearing the "Manager" tag.)

Personally, I'd recommend focusing on the "competent and reliable" part and less on trying to assign "traditional" gender traits. It's up to you, though.

  • 1
    Regarding emulating the real-world example you provided: I don't think it's necessary or even useful to emasculate the male characters by making them whiny, submissive and useless just to make the female characters look better in comparison. That way you risk to overhshoot your goal of not being misogynistic and might end up in misandric territory. But +1 for the important point that a strong character isn't necessarily a physically strong character and that there are plenty of positive character traits which can drive the plot and are not associated with masculinity.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 11:47

My answer may be short and simple, but regardless, I'll say it.

The way you write women as strong and assertive without implying masculine-coded behaviours/abilities are the only ones that can be strong is by doing exactly that.

Write a woman capable of independently affecting the outcome of her story through means that aren't stereotypically masculine. That might mean that she's a talented manipulator/persuader (a trait that is exclusive to neither gender, but stereotypically considered a feminine skill) or she's capable of outwitting opponents through skill rather than brute strength, or her resolve to remain upbeat regardless of the shit she's been through (another gender neutral trait) makes her push through adversity.

There's lots of options here.


Imagine women who grew up playing with barbies, who did a "girly" subject at university if they went, who wear pink dresses and hairbows, who have an ectomorphic frame and... well, whatever stereotype you like. Let's see how much of a dilemma you have:

Real Women Don’t Wear Dresses is when writers portray female characters possessing traditional feminine qualities as being less desirable, competent and reliable instead of their tomboy foils.

Then show they're desirable, competent and reliable. Does anyone want to date/marry or befriend them? Can they do their job well (as in competently/reliably), whether it be as a software engineer or a bus driver?

They also tend to be presented as whiny and annoying, even though they have traits or commit actions of worth and merit.

It's up to you as the plot's designer to decide whether a real-woman-who-wears-a-dress works on fixing a problem they face or a problem someone else faces, but either way, don't have them whine. Protagonists trying to achieve something needn't whine. Making a character "not annoying" is a bit trickier, because they can annoy readers inadvertently, but that's what beta readers are for.

Many writers seem to believe that they need to epitomize a female character’s strength through their ability to beat and to take beatings from men, not their personality.

Don't be one of them. A lot of male characters' strengths aren't epitomized that way. Think outside the box with female characters as much as authors have with male ones. You can even blend your options. Does Turanga Leela fight well? Yes. But even if she hadn't, she would have been a space pilot and disciplined package deliverer, and would have campaigned on things that mattered to a believable extent (as opposed to this one), with a certain degree of pragmatic detachment whenever circumstances warrant it. The fighting was frosting, which you might like or dislike.

When people write “strong female characters” (God, I hate that term) while ignoring the most fundamental part of what it means to be a woman by not giving them feminine traits and end up creating female characters that behave more like men rather than women. As a male writer, I wish to pen women that are strong in “classical feminine” ways in lieu of making them come across as “men with tits”.

How should I deal with such a dilemma?

I hate that term too; my link above explains why. I suppose the most fundamental part of what it means to be a woman is to be someone who, while cognizant of how society tries to put her in boxes for being a woman, nonetheless has about as much agency as a working-class man getting the same treatment for completely different reasons. But fair enough: if you think wearing trousers detracts from her femininity, maybe you're more level-headed on this than I am. One issue I had to work on, according to a beta reader, was making the fact a character was female more relevant, more detectable.

But as per the points I've made before, if you don't want your female characters to be admirable in the way warriors are, make them admirable in the way other admirable males are. Think Hiccup, think Rupert, think... well, I'm a bit late to bring up the Doctor. But they must have done that last example well, because within a couple of weeks critics weren't saying "how can the Doctor be a woman, with all that implies?" They were saying, "well, one of the companions isn't fleshed out very well, plus I didn't care for that episode set in that place, for the kind of reason I might have said if it had happened a series earlier".

  • 1
    +1 "Female Doctor turns out to be a non-issue, but flaws still happened…". That could be the short answer.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 19:54
  • 4
    @wetcircuit The OP will know they succeeded if their work gets critiqued for another reason.
    – J.G.
    Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 19:56

While the other answers cover options well, there are some "soft, yet badass" tropes writers can look at:

Embrace Girlishness

Agent Peacock

While this trope is more for male characters, it implies someone who is so completely confident in themselves, that they simply don't bother to look masculine.

To quote TV Tropes:

Their pretty looks and girly behaviour are an indicator of their prowess—they go through the exact same trials as the scarred, unshaven, macho-looking tough guys, and do it without messing their hair or breaking a nail.

Some characters use their femininity to maintain an element of surprise. (E.g. "No one suspects the flamingly camp hairdresser of being a super soldier.")

Loooking Physically Powerful

Girly Bruiser + Statuesque Stunner/Brawn Hilda:

While women don't build huge muscles, they can still look physically tough, with height or just mass. Unlike the chiseled 'amazonian' look, the statuesque stunner has the build of a basketball player.

Relies on Non-Physical Traits

Guile Hero(ine)

Judy Hopps of Zootopia is a straight example of this. Instead of being tougher, she tries to outwit other characters.

You can crank this up, make someone who is politically adept or manipulative. You can have a brilliant general who wins Sun Tzu or Machiavellian way, by deceiving the enemy. There's the Lex Luthor style villain, who builds layers of protection around themselves, such that even physically invincible enemies can't touch them.

Badass Pacifist

She can also someone who can completely defeat someone without any use of violence. She may get two warring factions to work together. She could also be similar to Hiccup of How to Train Your Dragon, who builds things and learns to swing the enemies to her side. In Fallout, an extremely charismatic and intelligent character can even convince the boss to kill himself.

Plucky Girl

When a man is determined, they are played as stubborn and relentless. But the feminine kind of relentless is in the form of optimism. This is Princess Poppy of Trolls, or Anna of Frozen. Even when she gets beaten down, she charges ahead, optimistic and idealistic.

She doesn't necessarily have to be sweet though. Vanellope of Wreck It Ralph is snarky doesn't avoid violence, but is still undeniably girlish.

The Dark Chick

The villain version of badass feminine is to subvert all the feminine qualities. She integrates herself well into the social ladder. She is empathic and understands people well. But she uses that skill to manipulate others and sow discord.

Often one of the big two bosses. Either the boss behind the boss, or the second in command. Again, there's an example from


Maternal Traits

Mama Bear

Probably as feminine as it gets - when someone they're protecting is being threatened, females of most species will rip apart the threat.

Team Mom or All-Loving Hero(ine)

The woman can be straight up nurturing. Either facing something hateful and countering it with love. Or they can be part of a rowdy group (e.g. Wendy of Peter Pan) and provide them with a feminine touch.


It's about your reader's perception of femininity, what they consider "feminine".

Masculine is commonly perceived as resilient, reasonable, silent, problem-solver and feminine is the opposite: fragile, emotional, outspoken and problem-dweller (ah, the cursed duality we must bring onto everything, don't we?). You may consider it a good thing, or a bad thing, but this is how it is and what we all have to deal with. We are all equal in the light of law (or at least - we're supposed to be), but traditions don't change as fast. That indeed is a problematic view, that forces women to partially abandon their femininity in order to achieve anything. Happens in real life, not only fiction.

Back to your writing: it's not about your characters being real or made up. It's about perception of femininity your readers already have and perception of femininity you want to shape. You need to push the boundary enough to stretch it, but not far enough to break it. Writers go for men-with-tits (or end up with them unintentionally) because a tomboy demonstrating strength presents no cognitive dissonance. Portraying strength through quality that's commonly perceived as weakness is difficult.

A way was led by Lady Macbeth. She achieved her goals via "typically feminine" ways of scheming and manipulation. The fact that she's a negative character doesn't change anything here, I take it as a simple shortcut - it's hard to demonstrate power in a positive way. Demonstrable power is pretty much always confrontational, either by the bad guys that started it or by the good ones - to overcome the former. And we've arrived at "women don't feel the urge to perform risky stunts in order to impress potential mates". Which is probably the one thing that has more merit than just a stereotype.

  • 2
    +1 However, feminine = fragile is a cultural thing. In my part of the world, feminine does mean physically weaker but it also meants resilient. Men are the ones who supposedly can't take a cold, while women can put up with all sorts of pain and discomfort without a complaint. Men are physically strong and outspoken; women are physically resilient and quiet (until they blow and are outspoken). I do agree with you wholeheartedly that it's about perception, though. Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 13:42
  • @SaraCosta Yeah, perception is what we've made up. How can I phrase it more clearly?
    – Agent_L
    Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 13:44
  • You can't, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that it's all about perception. I just tried to point out that perception is also a cultural thing so that the 'common perception' you mentioned is common only in some places. I'm sorry for not having been clear. Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 13:47

The initial problem was that writers (mostly, we assume, male) were writing female characters that were thinly imagined, stereotypical, and largely there only to reflect glory at the male protagonist, to serve as window dressing, or to advance the plot. They were based on male fantasies, not on portraits drawn from life. The ineffective solution was to write a new set of female characters that were just as thinly imagined, but were now based on a just-as-rigid inversion of traditional stereotypes. Most of these characters were still male fantasies, but just different ones.

The solution is to write better female characters, not just different ones --ones based on more than just your own personal image of what you'd like a woman to be.

Do you have close female friends? Have you done extensive reading of books by female authors? Have you had long conversations with women where you were mostly listening --and where they were talking about things important to them, not things important to you? Do you pay close attention to the women in your life? Do you really see them? Do you have female beta readers who you can trust to be honest? If not, it doesn't matter how many tropes you avoid or avert, you'll just be committing new offenses while avoiding the old ones.

  • +1 I may have given the examples, but you were the one who really went for the root of it all. Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 19:01

There is always an issue in literature with how strength, or any other human trait, is portrayed. In movies and TV in particular, that which is within can only be shown by external action. Books can look inward, but even so, representing qualities through action is still a major part of how books operate, especially in popular and genre works.

This creates a problem in the portrayal of strength in women. I'm going to get myself in trouble here, probably, but the characteristic strengths of men and women are different. To paint the matter with the broadest brush possible, strength in men manifests as daring; strength in women manifests as patience.

This is not to suggest that there are no daring women or that there are no patient men, simply that one it more commonly found in one than in the other. It makes evolutionary sense that it should be so. The male activities of war and the hunt (male because until very recently entirely dependent of physical strength) require moments of great daring. Those moments are of high intensity but short duration, and we all go get drunk afterwards. The female activities of caring for the children and household (while waiting in fear to see if the men return unharmed and successful from war or the hunt) require patience. (Children are charming in small to medium doses, but incredibly tedious if you have to spend many hours with them.)

Patience is just as important to human thriving as daring. Arguably, it has become more important over time as the need for acts of daring has decreased.

But when it comes to telling a story, and particularly to making a movie or TV show, acts of daring are easy to show, and acts of patience are not. If the stories of men have occupied a greater part of literature, it is because acts of daring -- typically though not exclusively male acts -- make a better story than acts of patience.

It is a common technique, in film in particular, to represent qualities and emotions through physical actions. Thus the daring of a stockbroker is dull and we seek a way to get them into a physical fight or chase to express their daring in more visual terms. In The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan is a CIA analyst who comes up with a daring analysis of the intentions of Marco Rameus. That is his essential contribution to the drama, but that does not make good TV, so the movie flies him out to an aircraft carrier, then to a sub, and finally has him in a gunfight with a Soviet saboteur in the missile room of the Red October: intellectual daring transformed into physical daring for the sake of drama.

This transference of qualities into action is bread and butter to the movies, and to books, to a lesser extent. It applies to showing the qualities of women as much as those of men. But it is hard to translate patience into action. So to portray "strong women" the movies often resort to having them perform physical acts of daring that are more typical of male strength than female.

Now one could make a good argument that in the modern world the need for daring is diminished and the need for patience is universal, so these distinct areas of strength are irrelevant now. But just because the need is no longer there does not mean the characteristic behavior is not there. Men are still bigger risk takers than women, for instance.

Some will argue that this is baked into our DNA and portraying it otherwise is mere propaganda. Others will argue that it is a mere social construct and that by portraying daring women in equal (or greater) proportion to daring men in media, we will undo that social construct and replace it by an equivalence of strengths between men and women in real life -- equalizing daring and patience in the behavior of both sexes.

This is the battlefront in the culture wars at the moment. There are land mines everywhere (placed by both sides). Be careful where you tread.


Write the characters you want to write

At the end of the day, if you write something you don't want to write, it will show. Feeling bullied into writing the character that you're told is politically acceptable won't result in a work that you, nor anyone else, enjoys. Don't worry about the critics on Twitter who try to slander your work as "problematic"; you're not exactly writing samizdat.

But be aware that it might take practice. You'll probably have a few clumsy sets of characters before you nail down the situations and conflicts that women have with each other, and with men.

That said, all human beings experience dire conflict; it doesn't have to be physical. Everyone jockeys for comparative status with their peers, they have rivalries, they socially backstab each other, they have deep and lifelong friendships that are tested, they find themselves ostracized by others, they're deceived into doing something unacceptable, they might fall into addiction, they move to a new place where they don't know what people expect of them, their skills are one-upped by a younger character who reminds them of themselves, etc.

On a more positive side, rarely do you need a macguffin to solve these problems; a woman who is concerned about her best years being behind her, and who has a younger rival competing for the same things as her, doesn't need a +5 Dress of Gorgeousness to resolve the conflict she has (even if she thinks she does at the beginning of the story), she instead needs to focus on pursuits that play to her strengths. Perhaps she can expose her rival for being slimy and underhanded, showing the world that being attractive does not mean being pure (or, perhaps her rival is unattractive and jealous in the first place, and moral is that being unattractive does not give you license to tear down others).

Conversely, a younger woman may feel pressured to be a straight-A student and to become a doctor, but is jealous of others who are more free to pursue friendships, relationships, travel, or other things that are not directly related to becoming a high-income member of society. Women today are highly pressured to be "men with tits", and fighting other women's expectations of them is as worthy as any other story. There is nothing wrong with being genuine, free, expressive, and loving - even if others want to tear her down for being weak. She might not be a millionaire when she's 30, but she's less likely to be a self-hating depressive who spends her time on twitter attacking people who live the life she wishes she had the self-confidence to live...

tl;dr women have just as many conflicts as men, just because they don't involve end-of-the-world scenarios, or a thrilling MMA battle with the bad guy at the end, doesn't mean they're any less real or consequential to the people concerned.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.